Child neophobia: when a child is afraid to try new foods.

Child neophobia: when a child is afraid to try new foods.

The avoidance or reluctance to eat new foods (foods which are unfamiliar to the child) is known in international research as child neophobia. While this phenomenon often occurs earlier, it usually appears at the age of 18-24 months, peaks between 2 and 6 years and decreases progressively as the child gets older.

Children who, several weeks earlier, were "joyfully" putting various items and foods in their mouths, or who were not "fussy eaters" in any way at all, suddenly begin stubbornly refusing to try new foodstuffs and new dishes. Indeed, most studies show that children mainly avoid fruit and vegetables, and sometimes also protein-rich foods such as fish, chicken and cheese. On the other hand, children continue eating starchy foods such as potatoes, pasta, biscuits and crackers, as well as foods and snacks that are rich in whole and saturated fat.

This period can be quite difficult for parents. On the one hand they want to meet their children’s needs for energy and nutrients, but on the other hand they also know that this age is critical for shaping healthy eating habits and that these habits do not only determine their children’s growth, but also their future health. The result is that parents often exert pressure, which unfortunately has the exact opposite results to those desired.

Child neophobia, however, seems to be a normal developmental process that, to a great extent, most people and many other mammals go through. It occurs at the age when children begin to become independent and to control what they eat. It would seem to have evolved to protect children from eating foods that might contain poisonous substances. This is reasonable if you consider that thousands of years ago (and also today without the proper health conditions) many fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, were potential sources of toxic substances and pathogens. This is also the reason why young children initially avoid bitter or sour tasting foods. However, the scientific community agrees that with experience (e.g. when children eat small quantities of food and see that they are not harmful) and by watching other people (e.g. seeing other people eating foods and not coming to any harm), the neophobia gradually declines.

Indeed, many studies have shown that children's refusal to try new foods can be dealt with effectively by exposing them to these foods repeatedly. It seems that children usually need to be exposed to a new food 5 to 10 times before they get used to it. From this point onwards, it has been shown that the more often a child eats a food, the more likely he/she is to begin enjoying the taste. 

Books dealing with neophobia in children give techniques that can help to gradually reduce the phenomenon:

• The "key" to effectively addressing the child's refusal to try new foods (usually fruits and vegetables) is repetition. When a child is regularly served a new food (regardless of whether he/she actually eats it or not), he/she gradually becomes familiar with its appearance and smell, and it ceases to be "new".
• Several studies have shown that when children are given a variety of foods from an early age, the chances of them developing neophobic behavior decrease.
• It has also been shown that children try new foods more easily when they are given small quantities. Indeed, it often helps if these new foods are served as accompaniments to foods which are already familiar to the child.
• Up until now the scientific community has not decided whether the tactic of rewarding children for eating helps or aggravates the phenomenon, as it can "reduce the value of food" for the child. If the parent tells the child "If you eat all your peas you can have an ice cream", the child may think “if they are going to reward me for eating peas, then I am probably not supposed to like them very much". And in this way, the child “learns” not to like peas.
• On the other hand, in many cases a reward seems to help, provided it is a small reward or verbal encouragement. Small prizes (such as stickers, parts of a larger toy, etc.) that are given when a goal is achieved (e.g. when the child is able to eat a certain amount of the food) can also make children more willing to behave in the desired way.
• Repeatedly giving a child small amounts of the food combined with giving him/her small rewards seems to give the best results.
• An excellent tactic that makes a child more willing to try new foods is following the example of older children. When he/she often watches parents or older siblings enjoying eating fruit and vegetables, he/she becomes more familiar with them and is more willing to try them out. Anyway, imitation is a basic learning mechanism in young children.
• Pressure and coercion have the exact opposite effects as they usually cause children to react negatively and exacerbate the phobia.
• Other tactics that seem to help are being creative and imaginative when serving food, eating in pleasant, quiet and safe surroundings and, most importantly, the whole family eating meals together (a phenomenon which is becoming less and less common!).

Child neophobia is usually a transitional stage in the child's behavior, but it is good it if can be overcome quickly and painlessly. In addition, childhood is a time of rapid spiritual and physical development and the child’s eating habits are shaped at this time. Exposing a child repeatedly to a variety of new foods from an early age, and always being patient and persistent rather than pressurising him/her, is the key to helping him/her to develop a balanced and varied diet. 

Margarita Octoratou
Health Counselor at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (ISPM)

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